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Indigenous candidates hopeful in Cardston-Siksika riding

CBC News with Melanee Thomas 12 April 2019

The Cardston-Siksika riding was created, in part, to consolidate electoral boundaries in the province’s southwest corner and adjust for a lack of population growth. 

It was created using portions of the former Cardston-Taber-Warner and Little Bow electoral divisions. It puts the Siksika First Nation reserve in the same district as the Town of Gleichen, and the Kainai First Nation.

And that has created optimism within these Indigenous communities, and candidates who hope to bring their voices to Edmonton.

The riding has little to no discernible voting history because it is stitched together from so many different past ridings. But one political scientist says the boundary has a familiar trend with many in the southern part of the province: a conservative voter.

Melanee Thomas said settler communities tend to participate more in provincial politics than Indigenous voters. And the way the Cardston-Siksika boundary has been drawn, she sees that while there’s a big Indigenous population there, the main voters within the riding are farmers.

“When Indigenous candidates come forward, it’s not for the party that is most likely to win, which is the conservatives in this area,” said Thomas, an associate professor at the University of Calgary. 

Cardston-Siksika already made the news in 2018 when then MLA Dave Schneider said he wasn’t happy with the boundary redraw because “these people don’t traditionally vote” — he apologized and later announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election.

Two Indigenous candidates running

Now there are two Indigenous politicians running in the riding, one for the NDP and the other for the newly formed Freedom Conservative Party.

The NDP first nominated Esther Tailfeathers, a doctor who has been involved in the fight against opioids, and a Blood Tribe member. Tailfeathers decided to withdraw.

On Facebook, she wrote that two young members of her community had died, and her focus needed to be with her family and patients.

Kirby Smith was nominated in her place. 

Smith has lived most of his life on the Piikani Nation and he’s worked in adult education as well as economic development and children and family services.

He’s excited to run, and with the new boundary including two reserves and many communities with Indigenous populations in between, he sees an opportunity. 

He said that in the past, Indigenous communities have become disenfranchised and have soured from participating in provincial politics because they don’t see tangible benefits. 

“I think that, for the most part, our voices have not been heard,” Smith said. 

He describes his campaign as a two-pronged approach: communicating his platform and getting voters to understand why casting a ballot is important.

He wants to address social issues; issues with youth, drugs and alcohol. But on the other side of the coin, he says both the Blood Tribe and Siksika Nation have made their own economic strides thanks to their perspective leadership — and the provincial government should support that kind of activity.

Smith drives in his first sign at the corner of Highways 547 and 901. Then, he heads to Siksika Nation High School, where his auntie, Ruth Scalp Lock, is visiting with the kids.

Scalp Lock is a Siksika Nation elder. She explains that Smith comes from a long line of leaders, including herself — as it happens, she also ran for the NDP, in a 1992 byelection.

“It was scary,” she said. “I always felt I could do something, not just for me but for our people, because we need a voice, a strong voice. They have to listen to us because there’s so much we run up against.” 

She said she ran into negative experiences during her race that she can laugh about now. Scalp Lock recalls the clippings from the newspapers. She tells Smith the paper headline read “ND Candidate Running — She Just Came Out Of The Kitchen.” 

Running to serve all constituents

Scalp Lock said Smith needs the support from the elders to lead him on the right road, and she wants to be there for him.

And while he’s concentrating on garnering support from both nations in his riding, Smith says he isn’t just a candidate for Indigenous voters, he was born and raised in rural Alberta and he’s running to serve all of his constituents.

Jerry Gautreau is a councillor for Rockyview County, but he’s running for the Freedom Conservative Party.

“The reason I chose that riding is because I’m a non-status Indigenous person,” he said. “There are two sovereign nations on that riding, and when we look at those sovereign nations … are they really getting help from the provincial government?”

‘We’ve been trying to listen’

But what he says he can bring to this riding, and what he’s thinking about, is a funding solution to replace MSI funding — and he wants to bring his riding something sustainable. 

Much further down the road, and just 25 kilometres from U.S. border, is the town of Cardston. 

That’s where the United Conservative Party’s Joe Schow’s campaign office is. 

“We’ve been trying to listen and speak with as many people from Indigenous communities, but also from the Dutch communities here in the south and find out what the problems are,” he said. “Then we want to find solutions instead of, you know, putting the cart in front of the horse.” 

Schow is larger-than-life. He’s six foot nine inches and had quite the basketball career — although, in a town of 3,500, he said he didn’t really have a choice. He had to be on the basketball team.

Schow says he’s been on the campaign trail for close to five years between the last provincial election, managing campaigns and most recently running for a federal nomination.

And on the trail for this election, he’s wearing through socks to knock on doors and talk to Albertans about jobs and the economy. He wants to fight for energy, pipelines and agriculture. 

On social issues, Schow is known for his pro-life beliefs.

“My personal beliefs on abortion are public record and I am a pro-life person,” he said. “But we’re not legislating on that. It is a federal issue. What we’re really focusing primarily on is getting the economy back to work.”

Schow says politics is all about a diverse representation, and differences of opinion. Schow says the NDP wants to see a prosperous Alberta — his party simply disagrees on how to get there — and that’s what creates robust political discourse. 

Locally, he says there’s a need to address the opioid crisis on the Blood reserve. But he wants to be able to fund ways to treat drug users, instead of just putting up safe consumption sites.

Voters want respect and to be heard

“I don’t think it actually addresses the problem,” he said. “We need to help those who need help. And we have to help them become come back and be productive members of society.”

But most importantly, Schow says, he’s excited to represent his constituency in southern Alberta because his voters want to be respected and heard — and he’s going to be that voice for them in Edmonton. 

Also running in this riding is Casey Douglass for the Alberta Party, Cathleen McFarland for the Liberals and Ian Donovan as an independent.